Blond Ambition: A Yiddish Diva Serenades Fans


By Masha Leon

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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The American Friends of the Hebrew University dinner September 28 at the St. Regis honoring Daniel Schultz, managing director and co-founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson Gotham Ventures, was launched by glorious renditions of our National Anthem and HaTikvah, sung by Tizmoret, Queens College Hillel’s a cappella choir.

Harvey Krueger, philanthropist and past AFHU chairman of the board, noted that Albert Einstein left all his books and documents to the now 80-year-old Hebrew University. Highlighting the pivotal matching of “the spark of the scientist with the spark of the financier,” Prof. Uri Banin of the university’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology alluded to J.P. Morgan’s unwavering support of Thomas Edison when the financier asked the inventor to illuminate his mansion in 1882. Fueled by a steam engine in the stable, 385 bulbs brightened Morgan’s mansion. Although a spark from one of the lamps set a carpet on fire, burning down the house, Banin said that Morgan never wavered in his support of “new technology.”

Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, opened his keynote address in a light vein. He told of a Roman emperor who used to pit slaves against hungry lions. None of the slaves survived. One day, a Jewish slave asked: “If I can convince the lion not to eat me, will you free me?” The emperor agreed. The Jewish slave whispered something into the ear of the lion, and the beast walked away. “What did you tell him?” the astonished emperor asked. The slave replied: “I told him that after dinner, there would be a speech.”

Ayalon stated: “We don’t have natural resources.… Our resource is people. We live off… intellectual property… [and] Hebrew University is an insurance policy for Israel.” Turning to the issue of negotiations, Ayalon added: “Leadership is loneliness. No matter how great the staff, the final decision is one man’s decision.” Ayalon noted that although Anwar Sadat was advised not to sign the peace agreement, he decided to sign. “Barak [also] made an offer to Arafat.… Like Sadat, Arafat prevailed over his advisers, who begged him to sign. ‘You’ll never have a better offer.’ Unlike Sadat, he did not sign.” Ayalon added: “As Abba Eban used to say, ‘The Arabs never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’”

“Terrorism is designed not only to kill life… [but also to] paralyze civilization, to frustrate normal life, to destroy institutions,” Ayalon said. “The only logical solution is to fight as if [this were a] total war — not with [a] hand tied behind your back…. Wherever there is a fence… [there is] no terrorism…. It is a last resort.…We will double our effort to complete the fence.” He concluded: “The friendship of the [American] people is a great help. To us there are no Republications, no Democrats — only Americans…. [By the way,] I did witness both conventions.”

* * *

“I [once] wanted to be a blonde with a silent ‘x’ at the end of my name, like Mimieux,” Eleanor Reissa (whose first language was Galitzianer Yiddish) told the audience at the October 3 “Eleanor Reissa and Friends Sing Yiddish Soul” concert at the Merkin Concert Hall, a division of the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center. Reissa —singer, playwright, actor, director, choreographer and for five years artistic director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater — backed up by an ensemble of top-notch musicians (including Alicia Svigals [who, according to the program notes “is considered by many to be the world’s leading klezmer fiddler”]), charmed the full house with a program that tickled memory, elicited laughter and, at times, brought a tear to the eye.

Opening with a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” who goes into the barber shop “on the Fourth of Elul, tzu opshern zikh dos bord (“to cut off his beard”), Reissa’s well-chosen program included Molly Picon classics, Second Avenue favorites and the signature Vilna Ghetto song, “Yisrolik” (“I’m a Child of the Ghetto”). Sheldon Harnick (in English) joined Reissa (in Yiddish) in a duet of “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof” for which Harnick wrote the lyrics. Another counterpoint Yiddish-English duet of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” by Reissa (in Yiddish) and towering 6-foot-6-inch bass Elmore James (in Yiddish and English) was a showstopper!

Among Reissa fans in the audience were Bel Kaufman, Sidney Gluck, Motl Zelmanowicz, Julian Schlossberg, Elaine May and Stanley Donen.

* * *

This past Saturday I went back to the Dahesh Museum of Art for the October 12 private viewing of its new exhibit, Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor. It is a dazzling assemblage of 60 sculptures — many never exhibited before and culled from collections in France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

What a joy to view Cordier’s representations of multiethnic feminine beauty in such realistic busts as “African Venus” (bronze); “Chinese Woman” with an intricate gravity defying hairdo (bronze), and especially, “Jewish Woman From Algiers,” a breathtaking, vibrant work of bronze, enameled (turquoise and russet) bronze marble, gilding and marble-onyx. A nearby note informs that her headdress and robes are “remarkably similar to the painting ‘Madame Stora in Algerian Dress’ (“The Algerian Woman” by Renoir). The sitter is Rebecca Clémentine Stora, née Valensin (1851-1917) in Algiers, a member of two prominent Sephardic Jewish families in Paris.”

Cordier (1827-1905), one of whose patrons was Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, created the massive relief “La Marseillaise” on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This not-to-be-missed exhibit can be seen through January 9, 2005. Be sure to check out the photo “The Jewish Dancer” (1857), as well as the exotic illustration, “Jewish Woman Who Brings Her Wares to Young Turkish Women Who Cannot Go Out” (1712-13), by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737), in a display adjacent to the Cordier exhibit.

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